How to succeed at digital transformation: Influence many different people
For those of us working with B2B technology businesses, the past few years – not to mention the past 18 months – have been something of a whirlwind. Digital transformation dominates campaign rhetoric, with companies everywhere under pressure to map out their own transformation journey or risk losing out to the next Netflix.
(Side note: If Blockbuster could somehow have arranged to be paid royalties every time they were mentioned in an article like this, perhaps they’d still be with us today.)
Digital transformation means different things to different businesses. Some industries have rapidly changed beyond recognition; others have struggled to do more than make incremental improvements to the way they’ve always done things. We’ve heard again and again that more traditional businesses like manufacturing, engineering, supply chain and construction fall squarely into the second category.
Where tradition meets transformation
As someone who’s been following these sectors for the best part of three decades, I find this surprising. Throughout that entire time, various iterations of a digital transformation agenda have dominated the conversation – at least when viewed through the lens of trade media and front-line marketing. With the adoption of technologies like computer-aided design, rapid prototyping, product lifecycle management and virtual simulation, you could argue that these “traditional” industries have been ahead of the game when it comes to the use of digital tools and techniques.
But it’s true that the story can be a bit patchy, particularly where the theory of genuinely transforming business processes meets the practicalities of actually doing so.
For the last three years, we’ve been working with an organisation that has developed a blockchain-powered platform to transform the complex flow of data associated with the movement of cargo around the world. The nature of the platform requires a critical mass of players within global supply chains to sign up. That means everyone from shippers to freight forwarders, from port authorities to customs officers. In this complex landscape, the undeniable benefits of long-term transformation can be a tough sell when ingrained working practices often still involve that ghost of transformation past: the fax machine.
It appears, though, that 2020 was a turning point for many industries previously slow to take on the perceived disruption that comes with digital transformation. Not only did it provide an enforced breathing space – what better time to absorb change than when “business as usual” is anything but the norm? – but it forced many businesses to reinvent their offerings simply to stay afloat. We saw restaurant suppliers creating direct-to-consumer offerings, for instance, and restaurants themselves sending out kits to enable people to enjoy their meals at home.
Some of these enforced changes will prove to be “keepers”; others flash in pans. But if nothing else, the businesses that have not made changes are sensing a FOMO moment, even as the prospect of change itself continues to feel rather daunting.
These factors broadly hold true across all industries and are already heralding a lasting change for many service-oriented businesses like ours who have been able to confound the doubters by upping their home and flexible-working game. In manufacturing, engineering and supply chain, traditional ways of working are rather harder to shake up, but we’ve worked on multiple examples of brand and communication initiatives in the last 18 months that suggest the tide is turning.
Campaigning for change
And a big part of successful digital transformation is about communication. Transforming the way a business or an ecosystem goes about its day-to-day operations requires consensus, and that means influencing many, many different people. Those driving transformations need to find ways to meet resistance, doubt and inertia head-on.
Often, it’s a case of breaking down the idea of digital transformation into discrete, practical changes where immediate benefits are clearly articulated alongside a relatively painless path to achieving them. That’s the thinking behind IBM Garage, a consultancy model that applies agile collaboration to a rolling series of individual business challenges. Our launch campaign for IBM a couple of years ago stressed the many ways this approach removed some of the risks from digital transformation.
More recently, we’ve been working with an automation client to launch a new product designed to give retailers a new way to fulfill online orders from existing local stores. We created a narrative that would appeal to multiple stakeholders in such organisations and built an online experience that guided people to the most relevant insights and practicalities, based on the nature of their company and their role within it.
By carefully taking them through the art of the possible in this way, we effectively took cautious retailers from “How can I hope to compete with online specialists when we’ve only ever sold on the high street?” to “I have a supply chain hub on every high street already. Let’s start selling online.”
Ultimately, businesses struggling with digital transformation make two key mistakes. The first is to think they need to map out their whole journey before they embark on it. Far better to take it step by step, building consensus and momentum along the way.
More importantly, they are failing to appreciate that changes in human behaviour are at least as important to the success of digital transformation as any change in technology. And you can’t expect anyone to change – or become champions for change – without effective and empathetic communication.
A version of this article first appeared in Advertising Week, in July 2021